TV’s Deregulated Golden Age

Why so few critics understand what made HBO possible

The HBO Effect, by Dean J. DeFino, Bloomsbury Academic, 327 pages, $75

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin, Penguin Press, 303 pages, $27.95

For decades, no art form was more meticulously regulated by the government than television. For decades, no art form was more relentlessly bashed by its critics. Amazingly, nobody ever seems to make a connection between these two facts.

If we had a U.S. Portraiture Commission with the power to investigate whether Willem De Kooning controlled too much of the abstract impressionist market; or if Philip Roth had to worry about losing his novelist license over those scenes in Portnoy's Complaint with a hooker defecating on a glass-top coffee table; or if some agency, every few years, held hearings in which the public was invited to comment on Oliver Stone's qualifications to make films—doesn't it seem possible that painting and literature and the cinema would be different, and probably worse, than they are now?

What makes this blind spot about regulation's effect on art even more curious is that over the past two decades, as TV has increasingly slipped the bit of government regulation from its mouth, programming has dramatically improved. The latter event, anyway, has not escaped attention. Critics and television historians have arrived at a consensus that the Golden Age of television was not the 1950s but right now, and that it was ushered in by HBO, which shattered the TV programming mold with The Sopranos.

That's true as far as it goes. The suburban mobsters of The Sopranos committed as many felonious assaults on the rules of television screenwriting as they did on rival crews. From the relatively trivial (much of the show takes place in a strip club) to the previously unthinkable (a protagonist who is not only unheroic but profoundly and demonstrably evil) to the dramaturgically perverse (what did happen to that Chechen hit man who went running naked into the woods at the end of the "Pine Barrens" episode?), The Sopranos demonstrated anarchic contempt for the established order of TV storytelling.

The success of Tony Soprano & Co. opened the way for a generation of television heroes ranging from existentially troubled (the 9/11-damaged firemen of Rescue Me) to the flatly crazy (the manic-depressive CIA officer of Homeland, so wracked with personal and professional paranoia that it took us a full season to figure out if the guy she was targeting was really a terrorist mole or an innocent victim) to the homicidal (the serial-killer-next-door of Dexter). Not only has it become nearly impossible to separate the good guys from the bad, but on shows like Sons of Anarchy, where an arms-trafficking motorcycle gang slugs it out with voracious developers, or Breaking Bad, where a bedraggled cancer victim remakes himself as a murderous narcotics kingpin, there may not even be any good guys.

The result has been a bumper crop of intriguing TV dramas that are frequently a better creative bet than a movie industry increasingly dominated by slob comedies and superhero stories. From Martin Scorsese, who produces the birth-of-the-Mob Boardwalk Empire, to Steven Spielberg, about to launch his fourth season of homicidal space bugs on TNT's Falling Skies, more and more of Hollywood's big names are turning up on the small screen. At a press conference a few years ago, Ray Liotta was asked why he was doing a TV series rather than looking for a movie deal. He rolled his eyes and countered with a question of his own: "Have you seen movies lately?"

HBO's key role in this process is indisputable. Even before The Sopranos, the company was pushing all sorts of envelopes with the prison drama Oz, which had far fewer viewers but far more deviance, in every sense of the word. (The very first episode included cannibalism and a homosexual rape that ended in the branding of a swastika on the victim's butt.) And the many series that followed proved beyond a doubt that the The Sopranos was no mere lucky punch. Carnivale, a tale of itinerant Depression-era carnies, reimagined the 1930s political storm clouds of fascism and communism as the birth pains of the antichrist. Game of Thrones allowed modern anxieties about class, religion, and sexuality to play out in the guise of medieval mythology. Scorsese's Prohibition-era gangster drama Boardwalk Empire examines how women's suffrage and the Progressive movement inadvertently midwifed organized crime. The revisionist Western Deadwood not only emphasized the role of property rights in establishing civilization but also revealed exactly what Miss Kitty was doing upstairs at the Long Branch all those years on Gunsmoke.

But the question rarely asked and never answered in these discussions is: Why HBO? As the ratings for The Sopranos steadily climbed—the premiere episode of its third season, in 2001, drew 11.3 million viewers, which would have been a good number for a broadcast show and was a staggering number for a cable channel that reached fewer than a third of American homes—a growing buzz was heard from not only critics but even television executives themselves: Why doesn't broadcast television have anything like this?

Bob Wright, NBC's CEO at the time, grew so irritated by the grumbling within his own ranks that he sent tapes of The Sopranos to some of his colleagues with a memo asking if anybody thought the network could possibly air it. (Coincidentally or not, the episode Wright sent out included a notoriously brutal scene of a psycho Mob boss beating his stripper girlfriend to death in the club parking lot.) The answer, of course, was a unanimous "not on our corporate lives." When HBO bosses heard of the stunt, they took it as an insult. But Wright regarded it as a simple recognition of reality: A premium-cable network beholden neither to the Federal Communications Commission nor to advertisers was more free to unleash flying lead and billowing bosoms than its broadcast rivals.

Having made his point, Wright moved on without bothering to inquire how or why the rules had been written. Critics and historians, who might have been expected to look further, also did not. They mostly credited everything to the sheer artistic genius of HBO management—the network's "fostering of creativity in a medium notoriously averse to risk," as the Iona English professor Dean J. DeFino puts it in his new study The HBO Effect. Why television for its first four or five decades should have been more averse to risk and less attractive to creativity than the rest of Hollywood is a matter that continues to receive little consideration.

The HBO Effect and magazine writer Brett Martin's Difficult Men are the two most recent additions to the small but growing library of works seeking to document and explain our new Golden Age of Television. Like their predecessors, they mostly espouse what might be called the Thus Spake Tony Soprano Theory of TV History: From a primeval soup of mediocrity, a breed of Nietzschean super-executives arose to ruthlessly destroy all that had gone before.

Difficult Men is at once the less culpable and more egregiously stupid of the two books in its accounting of the factors that shaped the early television industry. Martin's book is a series of highly entertaining profiles of the best and brightest television producers of the last 15 years, from The Sopranos' perennially depressed David Chase to Mad Men's sly Matthew Weiner, who smiled in his enemies' faces ("Did you actually say 'fuck you' to me? OK. Well, you don't mean it") and then put their names on tombstones in the backgrounds of scenes.

Martin interviewed many of these men—yes, they're nearly all men—while writing for GQ and authoring an official companion book for the final season of The Sopranos, and he displays an enviable skill for coaxing anecdotes from his subjects. I could only marvel, for instance, at David Chase's disclosure that ABC at one point was going to put him in charge of its nostalgic coming-of-age-in-the-'70s drama The Wonder Years. His first script had the show's 13-year-old hero sharing a pack of butts with the ghost of Holden Caulfield, and the network, as they say in Hollywood, decided to go in another direction. ABC's invitation probably never would have been extended in the first place had the network known that CBS had already booted another Chase submission, a series about a Mob wife that included a character with the not-exactly-FCC-friendly name Big Pussy. (The name, if not the persona, would get a second chance in The Sopranos.)

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  • Snark Plissken||

    I've thought for years that this is the Golden Age of TV. In contrast to Hollywood films which I barely keep up with anymore. Better dialog, longer story arcs, better characters and as CGI gets cheaper and high quality digital video, etc, production values are often similar to those of the big screen.

  • None of the Above||

    "It's Garry Shandling's Show" (note that there are two R's in his name) ran on Showtime, not HBO, and, indeed, the fourth wall was broken well before Dobie Gillis by George Burns on "The Burns and Allen Show."

  • UnCivilServant||

    No investigation of the "Blockbuster Effect" making Hollywood more risk adverse and leading writers to take their time and ideas to TV?

    Focusing on fewer, bigger projects aimed at gargantuan returns leads the decision makes to only take a crack at the sure thing, reducing the number of salable, but potentially marginal projects financed. This same pernicious pattern has taken root in mainstream publishing after the Thor Power ruling and the initial bumpy transition into e-publishing. (Thor Power made unsold stock a liability for tax purposes, so it was more economical to destroy leftover stock, which led to an incentive for only commissioning stock that moves fast out of the gate rather than builds slowly.)

  • John Thacker||

    But that still requires explaining why HBO, which also has fewer, bigger projects than mainstream TV, ends up going in a different direction.

  • Mongo||

    HBO's first year was free, if anyone remembers. Man, was our family hooked after that.

    Got to watch foreign skin-flix like Swept Away and titty shows (Canadian tv would show boobs late-nite but only if the scene was 'tasteful').

    Some of those films' runs were cut short due to complaints, I do remember that....

  • Loki||

    Having made his point, Wright moved on without bothering to inquire how or why the rules had been written. Critics and historians, who might have been expected to look further, also did not.

    If they had looked into it a little further they might have been forced to recognize that their wonderful government regulations were to blame and that might have caused their tiny little heads to explode.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    The problem with TV is the serialization that prevents a complete, coherent story arc: a beginning, middle, and end. Only Dickens could do it.

    Obviously, most involved want a program to go on as long as possible, but that breaks down the overall coherence of the narrative. Breaking Bad did it about as well as can be expected. The Sopranos was a mess in the middle with episodes and story lines that went nowhere.

    The best structure is the mini-series with a known number of seasons/episodes.

  • bassjoe||

    Dude. Forget Sopranos wilderness time. Lost Season 3... wtf happened there?

  • LynchPin1477||

    Babylon 5 may be the only TV show I am aware of that had a pre-defined, 5 season story arc. And as a result the story was pretty awesome. I'm not usually a fan of remaking TV shows/movies but I would love to see what Babylon 5 could have been with a quality cast, writers, and today's special effects.

  • Will Nonya||

    The only thing wrong with that idea is that it would still have been Babylon 5...

  • Nell Minow||

    Perhaps it is no longer expected for an author to contact a cited source or try a Google search before assuming what he "would have hated," but it would have prevented you from completely mischaracterizing the views of my father, Newton Minow, both when he served as Chairman of the FCC from 1961-63 and today. If you had done either, you would have seen that he understood even in the 60's that while scarcity in allocating airwaves justified some consideration of the public interest (also legislatively required), the real solution was competition. Therefore, he promoted making more channels available through UHF and cable and was instrumental in the launch of the first telecommunications satellite. And he loves "The Sopranos." Next time you need a straw man, make sure he is actually on the other side.

  • Vincent Milburn||

    Not that I support censorship, I like a number of R-rated movies, but plenty of classic movies were made in the 30s, 40s, and 50s under censorship. Does Casablanca, for example, really need nudity and cussing?

    I do find it interesting that movies are the much superior medium and they age much better than television. Most TV shows cause people to look back, even within ten years, and say,"Why did we ever like that? It was so corny."

  • Mongo||

    70s cinema bested that classic period in film, in my opinion. Plenty of nudity and cussin'.

  • bassjoe||

    Just wait until more Internet-only companies like Netflix have the financing available to produce even more high-quality shows, completely outside the grip of television regulation.

  • Remnant Psyche||

    Deadwood was a "revisionist Western?" Ugh... THERE'S a phrase I see (mis)used far too often these days.

    And give me a break on the John from Cincinnati hate. I understand that most people are unable to enjoy a story if they don't entirely understand everything that happens at all times, but that's David Milch for you. He's one of the best writers working in television, and he's creating art. Sometimes, art is going to be divisive. (And the show was excellent! Same was true of Luck... Milch just can't catch a break.)

    Great article, otherwise.

  • cheap kits||

    This same pernicious pattern has taken root in mainstream publishing after the Thor Power ruling and the initial bumpy transition into e-publishing.

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